A new president, a noble history

I admit it. I’m a sucker for ritual.

Ritual moves me. Makes the hair on my neck stand up. Brings a tear to my eye.

By ritual, I mean those rare moments when the texture of certain events, often public, are suffused with strong meaning, often historical reverberation and powerful emotion that transmute them into occasions beyond mere fact.

Funerals are ritual, weddings even more so, when liturgy is linked with music and emotion in sacred spaces.

Raising the flag and singing the Star Spangled Banner are rituals I love, singing and holding my right hand over my heart.

The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah is a ritual event to me, especially when the entire audience rises and sings the majestic music together.

Advancing learning

So I was fully in my element last Friday when I attended the inauguration of Dr. Mark S. Schlissel as 14th president of the University of Michigan.

It was a day of pomp and circumstance: The hopes and fears linking the old with the new. The academic procession, all spectacular in fluttering flags and the multi-colored robes and hoods, each signifying the academic discipline and university of the wearers. The high words of ceremony transferred the presidency from the enormously successful Mary Sue Coleman to a talented but untested research physician, formerly provost at Brown University.

This came about at a time when the centuries-long model of university learning and teaching is under great pressure and very likely to change considerably over the next decade.

All this was deeply moving ritual to me. Especially when I sensed that behind all the pomp and ceremony stands the institution of the university as a representative monument of Western civilization, one of a small group of social institutions designed to advance learning and understanding, educate and guide our youth and contribute to the general good of our people.

In the context of last Friday’s events, this historic role and mission gains point and power when we consider that the U of M is one of a small number of world-class universities that also happen to be public – not private – and therefore morally infused with the obligation to serve and advance all our citizens – rich and poor, downtrodden and elite – to achieve to the greatest extent of their capabilities. In his presidential address, Dr. Schlissel called the public nature of the University the “bedrock” of its purposes.

Sustaining a civilization

In today’s times, a university education is now treated by many as a ticket to prosperity rather than a shared commitment by society to educate and uplift our citizens. And the funding of universities, especially public ones, is today less considered a public good and social obligation and more a system of user fees paid for a ticket to a good job.

More is the pity, as the long lesson of universities through the ages has been that those societies that neglect them inevitably deteriorate.

While I served as a Regent of the University of Michigan years ago, I developed the thought that when the historians of the 21st Century get around to writing the history of America in the 20th Century, they will conclude that the signature creations of our country was the creation and support of seriously excellent public universities.

There aren’t as many of them these days as there were a couple of decades ago. But those that do remain deserve and merit our admiration, respect and support.

Friday’s ceremony fused together elements of history, emotion and purpose into the age-old ritual of installing a new university president. To me, it was a moving demonstration that joined past and present, hope and fear, and the lift of a dream of a better life for our people.

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Patsy Cantrell
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 10:54am
Thank you for this article and the perspective you offer. It is a pity that so many top positions at universities have become parking places for out of work politicians. At least in my opinion, the public is better served when people who have committed their life to education are leading our institutions of higher learning. There is a role, at the board level, for including a broad range of experience.